New Year's Eve

For the first time in my nine years as a mom, I am staying home tonight to ring the New Year in with the kids. Strangely, I'm really excited about it. We have party hats, finger foods, balloons, and confetti to commemorate the passing for 2009. In that spirit, here's our year in photos:

I hope you have the New Year's Eve you're wishing for!

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What a long strange trip it's been

I posted this on my Facebook earlier:

And that's really how I feel. What a delicious, amazing, delirious past ten years. My younger sister was over for lunch earlier and we started discussing our bests and worsts of the decade. Yet, neither of us could name a worst. The past ten years were full of goods, betters, and bests. Even the sad, humbling, heartbreaking moments are ones that I embrace and appreciate.

Ten years ago I was earning my Masters degree in a beautiful, young city. That experience paved the way for me to have what seems to be a decade of riches. I can only pray that the next decade gives me even more opportunities for grace and light.

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Look at those fine motor skills!

I'm not bragging. Really, I'm not!

My Bellabug strung the beads and picked out all the correct letters for this fashionable number:

Yes, I chose the colors, order, and words. But the 2.5 year old picked up the correct bead, strung it, and then demanded "wud cudder nest, Mama?" or "wud yetteh now?" when I spent too long marveling over her brilliance development.

I had to pry it off her neck at bedtime, which prompted a massive tantrum from her and lots of eye rolling from the mountain man. Fortunately, I hung it where she could see it and she finally accepted her fate. I imagine it'll be her must-have item for school tomorrow.

Thanks to Nonni (my older sister) for sticking it in her Christmas pile. It was a hit (and maybe I'm bragging just a little bit)!

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WFMW: Display Kid Art

We have a budding artiste in the family. He loves to draw, paint, sculpt, and carve. My refrigerator door is covered in one-of-a-kind masterpieces that will be worth something some day (and are already priceless to me).

Unfortunately, my kid genius can't part with his work. If I suggest that we toss out even the half-finished, ripped, or crunched up pieces, he looks at me with hound-dog eyes and asks me, "But don't you like my art?" And being the sucker I am, I immediately make more space on my refrigerator.

But then I saw in a magazine somewhere this really neat idea that fits our budget, requires no real skill, and can be done less than 30 minutes. Check, check, and check. Our new pat-yourself-on-the-back project? An art line.

Basically, it's a clothes line strung across two walls using S-hooks. The artwork is attached with binder clips. So easy and it looks very youthful yet clean. Also, it's high enough that a certain monkey can't mess with anything and kick off World War III. (You can only hear "No one appreciates my art!" so many times before your brain starts melting. I'm just sayin.)

We let Javi choose his favorite pieces to hang and the rest are stored in a rubbermaid tub under his bed. When he wants, he can swap the pieces out on his own, or remove the ones there to hang new favorites.

Simple, easy, and inexpensive works for me. What works for you?

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Christmas Recap

Our holiday celebrations aren't over yet, but I can already tell you what we'll remember most about this Christmas.

1) Javi will remember his "reindeer bell" that came attached to the Santa letter that appeared by magic on our doorstep. He's worn it non-stop since Christmas eve. He will also remember his totally awesome lego set and converse sneakers (guitars and skulls pattern).

2) Bella will remember her Princess Potty. Not sure why, but that's what she wanted from Santa and she got it. It plays a "princess song" when she tinkles. She has used it approximately 1,873 times since Christmas morning. I can only hope that having her own Princess Potty will mean some lasting potty training.

3) Billy will remember that if he doesn't help purchase or make a single gift, doesn't arrange for Santa letters, and doesn't organize any holiday get-togethers/meals, then he should expect full wrapping duty. Yes, it will be overwhelming (despite the kids only getting 5-6 gifts each), but he earned it by not really doing anything to get ready for the big day.

4) I will remember that buying and making all the gifts, arranging the Santa letters, and organizing the holiday parties/meals really isn't hard when you get started early and remember to maintain your boundaries. Also, I'll remember to use a checklist to ensure all gifts are put under the tree. Javi has a telescope and an easy bake oven still waiting in the attic!

All in all, we had a low-key and fun Christmas. I love that the kids aren't rushed to-and-fro, and that they get enough gifts to be bowled over yet not so many that they lose appreciation. I have a feeling this will be the last Santa year for Javi; I'm happy it was such a good one.

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Happy Birthday Bahboo

Nine years ago, I was a regular graduate student at Emerson College in Boston. I worked three jobs (editorial intern at Beacon Press, publicity assistant at New Words Books [now New Words Live], and Starbucks barrista) while earning my Masters degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing.

I spent nights drinking at Charlie Flynn's or the Blue Banana (which was really called the Green something but it reminded me of the dive bar from Pretty Woman so that's what we all called it). With my small group of girl friends, I dated my way across Boston -- from the Moroccan accountant in Brighton to the Ghanaian marketer in Dorchester to the regular ole white guy from Chelsea (not to mention the flower seller in Harvard Square, the Puerto Rican soccer player, and a handful of customers).

The point was to have fun, to live freely and in the moment, to do things that my mother would never find out about because, surely, 900 miles was far enough away to get away with something. And I did have fun. Some of my best memories are of that careless, slippery life in the city -- of the scorpion bowl at the hong kong cafe in faneuil hall, of somehow luring bouncers home with us after long nights of dancing at clubs in The Alley, of convincing taxi drivers to comp me rides home after nights at the latin quarter, of grabbing a slice at Dominicks, of accepting pitchers of beer from strangers in exchange for deepening my Southern accent.

It was a good life. A carefree and reckless life. A solo life. It was me and other adults making choices that would impact us and us alone.

And then I adopted my son.

He was born on this day nine years ago. I decided to adopt him three short weeks before his birth and did what I had to do to make it happen. I was scared and intimidated, but the other option was unacceptable. I told myself that I surely couldn't do it any worse than those raising children without the benefit of an education or support system.

So I held my nose and jumped feet-first into the pool of parenting. I decided that if the choice was to sink or swim, I'd better start paddling. I graciously thanked those around me for donations of large bags full of clothes, a bassinet, and mounds of advice. I stood in the delivery room, holding one of his biological mother's legs, as my son fought his way into the world, bruised and exhausted from a sunny-side-up delivery.

And I promised him that I would love him forever and furiously. I would do everything I could to ensure him a happy and healthy life, and that I would never give up on him. He has changed in so many large and tiny ways since that moment, but my determination to do right by him hasn't budged an inch.

I sometimes get mired in the intense struggle of parenting and feel like the absolute worst, most inadequate person to lay his foundation and help him build the life he deserves. I often throw my hands up and look around for someone to tag me out. The frustration eats away at me until I'm raw.

But he's my boy. My sweet, cuddly little Bahboo who still begs to have sleepovers in my bed, seeks comfort in my arms when he's hurting, and looks at me with shining eyes when he wants to share his happiness. His favorite moments are those spent beside me at the table making a craft or working a word puzzle. This past weekend, we sat in the floor and played checkers with his new game, a favorite from his birthday party. I watched him absorb every move I made and get steadily better as the game wore on. At one point, I sat open-mouthed at his skill and he said, "I'm pretty impressive, aren't I?"
I couldn't even laugh at his arrogance. I had to give him a big high five. Because he is. He is so impressive, and I appreciate him more every single day. I am blessed to be his mother and thank him so much for drawing me out of a selfish existence centered around nothing and into this warm, amazing circle of love.

Happy birthday baby. You were -- and always will be -- my most precious Christmas gift.

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Donation discoveries

My sister Ashley (who is in negotiations for my kidney) may have pneumonia ... or worse. She's currently in the hospital so her awesome medical team can figure out what's happening and fix it. That's as technical as I get when it comes to the mysteries of the human body (especially one that stays screwed up ... like her's).

On the way from my house to the hospital, we reminisced about the transplant orientation meeting. Mostly, we guffawed over licky fingers (who she reminded me also sported a crazy camel toe [as pointed out by me]) and made fun of the severely overweight guy two seats down from me who spent any free time lamenting over the mandatory diet changes that come with renal disease and dialysis ("I can't stand a vegetable! All I eat is chicken. Chicken and steak. And maybe a pork chop. And potatoes. But no vegetables! They gonna havta come up with somethin' ain't got vegetables in it if they want me to eat it.")

But after we got our giggles out, we began speaking in awe of what we learned about pregnancy and antibodies. Perhaps everyone else knew this, but when a woman gets pregnant, her baby is considered half foreign to the mother's body thanks to the baby's father's DNA. The mother's immune system creates antibodies against that DNA, though pregnancy hormones keep the baby safe inside the placenta.

But those antibodies remain in the mother's immune system. Therefore, the baby's father is ruled out as a viable candidate for organ donation. And the more pregnancies a woman has with the same man, the stronger those antibodies become. Which means if I ever need a living donation, my mountain man would almost certainly not be a candidate. That makes me incredibly sad, but also awed by the miracle that is the human body.

We are at the beginning of the transplant road. I can't wait to learn all the things I don't know that I don't know!

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What not to do in transplant orientation

The somewhat hush-hush piece of news in my personal life is that my sister is in the process of being evaluated so that she can be placed on the waiting list for a new kidney. That's the technically correct way of saying she's on the list barring any complications, like they decide she's psychosocially incapable* of handling a transplant.

In the ten years since she received two new lungs (at the ripe age of 19), the running joke is that I'll give her my uterus so that she can have biological children. Then her body began falling apart (which is why I created a body organ charm bracelet for her birthday present) organ-by-organ. The esophagus, the digestive tract, the uterus, the ovaries, the skin, and finally the kidneys.

Now, the running joke is that she'll take either my uterus or my kidney. My retort is she can have my kidney for the grand price of my out-of-pocket expenses for a lapband (and the uterus she can have for free). Apparently, she wasn't joking around because she drug me with her to the hospital this morning for a transplant orientation during which they regale you with facts and figures and price tags.

We learned a lot about living donation, financial burdens, and the process of renal failure. Most importantly, we learned some lessons that I'd like to pass along for anyone out there with immunosuppressed family or friends (or those who might be immunosuppressed but you aren't sure but it's possible) or those who work with the public (of which 10 percent are immunosuppressed for one reason or another).

Lesson #1: (For the professionals.) A large percentage of kidney transplant patients need a new kidney because the drugs from their OTHER transplant destroyed their system. In fact, the drugs you take to convince your body to accept a donated organ are the very thing that keep you from being able to use it forever. Anti-rejection drugs are toxic.

Therefore, if your targeted population is very likely full of immunosuppressed people, DO NOT lick your fingers each and every time you hand out a piece of paper or pen. Not only is it gross, but your mouth is filthy and you could kill someone. Further, DO NOT cough into your hand or play with your nose if you plan to hand things out to people. How could someone who works in the transplant unit be so stupid?

Total martyr moment: I totally took this one for the team. Rather than allow my sister to touch the spitty, snotty paper and pen, I filled out her paperwork for her and then immediately felt myself developing the flu so I exited the orientation to go Silkwood in the bathroom. But, hey, she got the info she needed and her immune system is none the wiser.

Lesson #2: (For the patients.) Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of transplant patients are old, or older than my sister. However, just being old doesn't mean you can hijack a transplant orientation to talk about your daughter's preeclampsia or how much you hate Medicare Part D plans.

You're old so you like to talk and there aren't enough people willing to sit and listen, I understand. The problem is the rest of us want to get out of here today sometime, so how about you write down those inane facts and discuss them later with your coordinator -- the person paid to listen to you ramble.

Lesson #3: (For everyone.) Ment is not a word, so please stop pausing before you say it. The word is "appointment," not "appoint ment." Basement, not base ment. Payment, not pay ment. When you are speaking in a group setting and you want people to answer your questions thoughtfully, then you shouldn't create words because all that does is make me focus on the words coming out of your mouth. That's not what you want when your future kidney hangs in the balance.

Lesson #4: (Another one for patients.) Fortunately, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) doesn't care whether you were born in the United States or just arrived here last month. So long as you pass the evaluation, you will land on the waiting list. Also, follow the rules and you'll get Medicare coverage to help pay for the transplant.

However, no matter how many times or different ways you ask, UNOS isn't going to magically pay for you to fly in relatives from China or foot the bill if you return to China to seek out a donor. It's just not happening, so you aren't allowed to ask another question about it or shake your head pitifully while saying, "So Medicare won't pay for me to go there?" No! It won't! The rest of us heard the answer five times ago. You may want to look into an ear transplant while you're out of the country. I'm just sayin.

I imagine I'll learn more fascinating tidbits as we tumble down the transplant road, but I had to share these. I still get creeped out think of that transplant nurse licking her fingers 18 times in 20 minutes. Yuck!

*This the part Ashley almost failed last time, so we like to make fun of her. I passed some idle time today outlining all the ways just being a member of our family should make her psychosocially incapable. It's all good when you're being evil, but those psychosocial measures can be really tough. I hope she passes!

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The Best Christmas Gift

I have received some fabulous Christmas gifts in my lifetime. I think the most valuable and emotional was my son, whom I brought home from the hospital on Christmas morning in 2000. That was the gift that changed my life in the most positive and influential way.

But my favorite Christmas as a young person was the year my dad bought me a stereo system. I was an avid music listener. I had always wanted to play an instrument, but money was tight. I assumed that our family couldn't afford to buy an instrument I'd enjoy (drums, guitar, sax, or piano), so rather than ask for one, I relied instead on the radio.

Starting around eight years old, I dedicated long hours to listening to music -- mostly on a little homemade radio my dad passed down to me that he pieced together from an old car stereo. I'd roll the dial up and down the line, listening and singing along to whatever song came on. After I exhausted the FM channels, I'd switch to AM. I had a few cassettes that were given to me (like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Rolling Stones that my favorite uncle slipped to me), but mostly it was all radio all the time.

And then one Christmas, when my dad sent our gifts, I saw that I had one really large box while my sisters had several small boxes. I couldn't even imagine what was in that box. On Christmas morning, I tore into the wrapping paper as quickly as I could. It was a real stereo system complete with 5-disk CD changer. I didn't own any CDs yet, but I had big dreams of all the music I'd soon have at my fingertips.

I was a little heartbroken that my sisters had so many small trinkets to unwrap and I only had one, but that melancholy was soon replaced when I saw that my younger sister was given two CDs: Garth Brooks' No Fences and Shakespeare's Sister's Hormonally Yours. I could test out my new gift! I think we played Shameless and Stay on repeat for the next 72 hours.

I don't even own a stereo now; all that bulky equipment has been replaced by iTunes and my iPod. However, the memory still makes me feel excited and loved. I remember feeling so special that my father would purchase this extravagant gift just for me and so understood because he knew that music was the one thing I loved most.

It never occurred to me to think of how much that stereo cost or what my mom could've bought with that money (considering my father refused to pay child support). It was Christmas and my gift was perfect.


This post was written for the (W)rite of Passage challenge created by Mrs. Flinger. The challenge is designed to inspire bloggers to write, to hone their craft and tell better stories, rather than to chase page views and followers. The challenge is open to anyone, so join if it speaks to you!

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Sticky note #7

The beauty and glory of childhood is how fast it passes. One minute you have a mewling baby and the next an antagonistic big kid. Another blink and my big boy will be a pre-teen ... and then (gasp) a teenager. Blinks in time that hold so much weight, you know you can't carry them alone. That's why I'm so thankful for this blog where I can chronicle my children's evolution. For example:

-- We've spent many hours teaching our children the value of volunteering and community service. When possible, I have taken Javi with me to serve food, clean up parks, collect food, and other good deeds. However, he has remained the typical "I want more!" American child. Until this Christmas. I am so impressed by his spirit of generosity right now.

For instance, he found out that our friend's son is in love with Teen Titans right now. Javi decided to search his closet for his old, still-in-great-condition Teen Titans backpack and give it to this child -- without any suggestions or prodding from any adult. He also wrote a note to go in the backpack telling the child to have a Merry Christmas. After the mom left, Javi let me know he wants to share all of his things with other kids. I'm so proud of him!

-- If I could design a child to act just like me, he'd be Javi. I am often taken aback by how much alike the two of us are -- in good and bad ways. We both love to argue/debate and it kills us to walk away without having the last word. We both find a way to win on a technicality and we both file things away in our rolodex brains to use later.

But we have fun things in common, too. This month, Javi has become a little foodie, and it warms my heart! His new favorite show is Good Eats and he thinks Alton Brown is a superhero. He was upset that Kevin didn't win Top Chef and wants to be Andrew Zimmern when he grows up. For Christmas he asked for an Easy Bake Oven (for boys) and keeps fantasizing about all the amazing creations he'll make. Yesterday he asked me if I knew how to make a foam. I had to let him know (gently) that I barely make it through crock-potting something for dinner. He was so underwhelmed. :) I may be nurturing the next Thomas Keller. Did I mention being proud?

-- Speaks in full, complicated sentences and can hold comprehensive conversations. But until recently she couldn't (or wouldn't) open the door to her own room. Instead, she'd lay in bed and yell for someone to come get her (just like Javi did at her age). So I took it upon myself to start knocking on her bedroom door in the mornings so she'd have to open it on her own.

Huge mistake. The child now comes and goes like the Queen of Sheba. This morning, she popped up in the bed with us at 4 am ready to party. Or at least that's what I heard. I slept through the whole thing (as the mountain man entertained the princess). Also, I'm not allowed in her room without knocking first. If I try to enter without knocking, she yells at me to "get outta here!" Hello, two-going-on-twelve.

-- The dexterity required to open her door was surprising. The determination to watch her Barbie movie is something else altogether. Maybe a mixture of annoying and dangerous. The child pulls something sturdy up to the entertainment center, climbs up, opens the DVD case and pulls out the DVD, and then pops it into the DVD player. And she can do it in a span of 2 minutes or less. I know because that's how long it took me to pee and she was watching the movie by the time I got back.

If the mini-DVD player is out (which it often is thanks to the mountain man's inability to put things back where they belong), she'll skip the whole tv set up and go straight to it. I've found her sitting in the floor with one of Javi's GI Joes watching "Bobby the nutcacka" way too many times. I guess I should just bolt everything down and be done with it.

-- It's wintertime in these parts. Yes, winter means a median temperature of 50 degrees, but that's really cold to us with Southern blood. To keep Bella warm, we put her to bed in either zip-up or two-piece footie pajamas. She rarely stays that way. Every single morning, when I go in to get her, she has stripped down to her diaper (and some days that is gone, as well). I can't keep clothes on her to save my life. If she isn't manhandling the electronics, she's stripping her clothes off. Hopefully this is just a stage and not a sign of things to come. ;)

-- I really can't say enough about her verbal ability. I was so worried for so long that she'd be as delayed as Javi was. Also, every child in our family has had some type of speech delay, so I was paranoid. I wish I could take that time back. This girl is a talker and she does it with clarity and maturity that takes all by surprise.

She's also a little learner bee. I don't think her school focuses much on academics, but Bella knows her alphabet by memorization and sight. She also knows her numbers. She broke into the child lock on our junk drawer and came running to me yelling, "I foun' a eight Mama! I foun' it!" Sure enough, she was clutching an 8 candle in her dirty little hand.

Bella also loves to count things, including how many of something we all have and how many of something she's seen. She told me the other day that she saw five red lights on the way home. The mountain man backed up her story -- apparently she counted them out loud. I asked her how many green lights she saw. She told me, "I seed one, but it not Daddy's light. It for da peeble." The mountain man said, "Yep, the other people got to go, but we had to stop."

All I can say is, I am promising myself not to waste anymore of my day worrying that either of my children will be left behind in this world. They definitely have it all together!

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The way to people's hearts

It's true. You want to show someone you love them, feed them. You want them to think you're amazing and talented and creative, feed them homemade treats.

I don't bake. I see a recipe with more than four ingredients and I stop reading. If it calls for flour, I stop reading. If there's any work involving a sifter, a zester, a sieve, or a processor, I stop reading. I think I've made my point.

Surprisingly, I love to make Christmas candy. Of course, I never make anything involving mixing or baking -- but what I do make is apparently akin to crack, because my family acted like they wanted to crush it up and smoke it tonight. (And, yes, I'm aware this is funny considering someone in my family is a recovering crack addict. That's called family humor.)

Before this takes a dark turn, consider the evidence. I started with three tins of candy and I'm left with this:

A few pieces of peppermint bark and a handful of rolo stacks (also called "prolos" by the mountain man). And a few tumbleweeds. I plan to make another batch of each on Monday since Javi's home all week and he loves to help. These are seriously the easiest (and apparently tastiest) treats to make. Here are my recipes:

Rollo Stacks
1 bag of Rollos
1 bag of waffle-shaped pretzels
Baking sheet
Wax paper

-- Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
-- On your wax-paper-lined baking sheet, lay out as many pretzels as you have Rollos. Top each pretzel with a Rollo. Stick the sheet in the oven for 2 minutes or less -- you want to leave it in just long enough to soften the Rollo (but without melting it -- needs to be semi-firm).
-- Take out the sheet and top each Rollo with another pretzel, pressing down slightly to create a sandwich. Stick the baking sheet in the fridge to cool. These are heavenly!

Peppermint Bark
1 bag dark chocolate chips
1 bag white chocolate chips
5 small candy canes (more or less depending on what you have. We had five.)
Double boiler (or your preferred melting method)
Baking sheet w/ sides
Wax paper

-- Dump the dark chocolate in the double boiler and melt away. Meanwhile, stick the candy canes in a plastic bag and pound away with whatever tool you have on hand. I have a mallet specifically for candy cane crushing, but you can use anything hard (coffee cup, hammer, etc). Crushing them in the bag keeps your candy cane dust in one place. I prefer to crush up the pieces fairly fine, but you may prefer bigger chunks.

-- Line the baking sheet with wax paper. When dark chocolate is melted, pour it into the baking sheet, spread it out evenly, and then stick it in the fridge. Clean your double boiler and then repeat the melting process with the white chocolate. Once it's melted, stir in as much peppermint dust and crumbles as you want. I like leave some out to sprinkle over the top.

-- Pull out the cooled dark chocolate and spread the white chocolate-candy cane mix evenly on top. Pop it back in the fridge. When it's cooled, break it up into smallish pieces and store in airtight containers. I usually reuse the plastic bag until I'm ready to gift my candy. I also line the tins with wax paper to help the candy last longer.

Warning: Don't make either of these treats unless you a) plan to gain 10 pounds or b) need to make someone fall in love with you.

My mother has hidden her tin in her office so she doesn't have to share. My father ate his tin and then got a refill before he left. My sister (who is 12 and therefore so worried about her weight) must've eaten a tin on her own. My other sister kept going back for more. And my yet other sister glared at all of us because she's gluten intolerant. Sorry Ashley!

My teacher friend told me no one wants to eat candy when they don't know how it was prepared or whether the person making it practiced good hygiene, so I haven't shared my treats with folks who don't come to my house. It's a safe bet. Javi's teachers came really close to getting a tin. Too bad for them!

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GTT: Taking the fall

I'm not the most graceful person. I drop things and trip over my own feet. I spill and splatter and crush. And, unfortunately, I do these things most often when I have an audience to entertain.

Take for example one of the most embarrassing -- and hilarious -- spills I've taken. During sophomore year of college, my girlfriends and I decided to pack up for a long weekend at the beach. We were anxious and frenetic, so ready to be off the hall and out in the world.

Little did we know then that the hotel we'd booked was dirt cheap for a reason (you know it's bad when you refuse to take your shoes off inside), that we'd meet a hooker named Bobby Jo who mixed up margaritas in a Pringles can and bragged about losing a tooth on the motorcycle ride down, that we'd wind up with Sammy-Haggar-of-South-Carolina and his buddies permanently camped outside our door, or that we'd meet a group of military guys who became great friends (or that one of those guys would marry one of our girls).

We just wanted to be away from campus, from Greensboro, from rules and responsibilities. We made the winding trek from our third-floor dorm rooms in Ragsdale Hall to the car and back, loading up suitcases and grocery bags (my suitcases in those days) while giddy with the impending freedom. On the last trip down, I volunteered to carry the last of the beer. I didn't drink beer, but I understood its importance in our plans for a wild weekend of abandon.

There I was, the least graceful person on Earth, in sandals with zero traction, carrying a six-pack of cheap bottled beer we scored from someone else because none of us was legal, hastily charging down three flights of dorm stairs and then one last flight of stone stairs from the dorm to the parking lot. Did I mention it had rained earlier? Can you guess what happened?

Yep. I navigated the inside stairs easily, but those stone stairs were slick and my sandals were no match. I didn't just trip, I slammed down those stairs. Half backwards, legs at all angles, knees down and then back up as I hit each and every step with a different part of my body. But you know what I didn't do? I didn't break a single one of those beer bottles.

No matter where I hit on those stairs, I made sure the hand with the beer in it stayed up and away. When I finally skidded to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, that arm remained firmly perpendicular to the ground. I slowly brought it down and gently rested the container on the ground as I mentally assessed whether I was alive or dead and if all my bones had remained intact.

That was when I heard the guffawing coming from all directions. I opened one eye and looked around. Sure enough, three girls at the top of the stairs, three girls in the parking lot, any number of people walking by, and my laid out at the bottom of the stairs covered in bumps and bruises. At that point, what can you do but get up, shake it off, and laugh with the best of them? I'm laughing right now, actually. It was pretty hilarious and I still have a dent in my shin from hitting those stairs.

One day I'll have to tell all about the time I fell at the club. But for now, I'll just thank the heavens that my bones are apparently made from rubber and my spirit is just as resilient.

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QOTD: Elbow grease

It's been a long week. Javi got into some major trouble at school last week and again on Tuesday (that I'm not quite ready to talk about) and then behaved horribly at my nephew's school Christmas program. Bella has been screamy and stabby and off for a few days. So, sitting down to dinner last night after a good 12 hours for both of them was a huge relief.

I suppose the levity of the evening loosened Javi's mouth (not that his mouth needs any help).

J: Daddy's the king of our house.

Me: The king? Why does he get to be the king?

J: Because he makes the rules.

Me: No he doesn't. I make the rules and he enforces them. So, technically, I'm the king and he's my army.

J: No, he's the king because he makes the rules and he works.

Me: Oh, because I don't work.

J: Well, you work on the computer, but Daddy does real work. Your work isn't real.

Me: What? It is so real. Just because it's on the computer doesn't make it not real!

J: Yes it does. Daddy uses elbow grease, you just use finger grease. Elbow grease is real work!

I had to erupt into laughter. I suppose he has a point. And he was so sincere, like he'd weighed it out and "computer work" didn't make the grade. The mountain man spent this entire conversation patting himself on the back. I expect his arms are sore this morning.

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Challenge: Lost and Found

Hungry doesn't describe the feeling.

At six years old, you don't know how to say, "Don't forget about me" -- even when you know, deep in your gut that he will. My father, freshly arrived from the mysterious wanderings that I later learned were prison sentences, was responsible for packing lunch and I knew the night before he'd never remember. But I held my breath and crossed my fingers that I'd have a full lunchbox when the time rolled around.

Yet it was lunch time and I sat empty handed. I could smell the deep, heavy aroma of spaghetti but tried hard not to stare at the hills of it piled on plates around me. The tears were right behind my eyes, tickling my nose and making my lips quiver. I was at the point of giving in, of admitting to someone -- anyone -- that my mom had trusted my dad to wake up in time to serve us breakfast and to send us off to school with both snacks and lunch ... but he hadn't.

The curling pain in my stomach unfurled like a whip, propelling me toward my teacher. That's when I saw him, hair tangled and wild, in a stained shirt and too-tight pants, barreling through the cafeteria toward me. He held a plastic grocery bag with hard lines and angles jutting from all sides.

I stood there, half relieved, half humiliated. He showed up for me. He wasn't going to let me go hungry. He loved me. He dropped into an empty seat at a table near me and motioned for me to come over as he unpacked container after container of food. He must've packed everything in our refrigerator. There were ham and cheese sandwiches, leftover chicken and rice, fruit slices, pickles, a half-bag of chips, a large bottle of soda, and several small cups of sauces and condiments.

He pushed item after item at me and I tried to eat it all. My teacher came by to let us know it was time to head back to class, but I didn't want to leave. My dad had prepared a feast for me with his own hands and I was bound and determined to eat it. I didn't care that his eyes were crusty or that his breath stank. He was my dad and he was caring for me.

When I finally drug myself away, my belly felt heavy and hard. I waved goodbye to him as he packed everything back into the plastic bag. He flashed a bright smile at me and sauntered away. I wanted to cry out to him: Stay! Don't leave me again, ever. Instead, I made my way back to the life I lived without him.

To this day, the smell of cafeteria spaghetti still fills me with hope.


This post was written for the (W)rite of Passage challenge created by Mrs. Flinger. The challenge is designed to inspire bloggers to write, to hone their craft and tell better stories, rather than to chase page views and followers. The challenge is open to anyone, so join if it speaks to you!

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Too cute not to share.

We survived the Santa Train. It was blustery cold and rainy, I got the times confused so we left our house only 30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave the station (and we live about 30 minutes away barring complications -- like horrible weather), Javi forgot his hat and Billy forgot his coat, and the four of us had to crowd into one seat.

But we survived, Bella loved every moment of it, and Javi eventually went over and sat with some friends in their seat so we could breath a little. Also, running half a mile through mud and sleet is great for burning up calories. It's all about finding the silver lining.

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So much Santa, so little time

On Thursday, my Jaycees group helped serve dinner to foster parents. Because we're adoptive parents, our family was also invited to attend the dinner. So while I served up the meatloaf and greenbeans, Bella and Javi played bingo, danced to holiday music, and each received a gift from Santa.

Oh, Santa. I think Bella would trade in her entire family for the big guy. When he first entered the room, her eyes flew open and she stood frozen in her spot. Then she realized I may not know he was there, so she came running for me. I was standing around the corner from her, so when she wheeled around that corner with her curls bouncing and her eyes as big as saucers, I knew. I knew she was hooked. She came barreling at me yelling, "Mama, it's Santa! He's here!"

I scooped her up and we went to sit patiently at Santa's feet until it was her turn to sit in his lap and take her gift. She sat very patiently, clapping for the other children and smiling brightly for Santa, until he called out her name. And then she clambered right up into his lap and gave him a big hug. She smiled for a picture and then hugged him again. She took her gift and then leaned in for another hug. Then it was time for her to move on so another child could visit Santa. She pouted and hugged Santa tightly one more time, said softly, "I wub you, Santa Caws," and walked pitifully away.

My heart would've broken for her except I had a secret up my sleeve: 2 more days of Santa! Today my Jaycees group hosted forty children at our Hut for gingerbread house building and guess who made an appearance? Yep. Bella was so tickled! Javi barely glanced at Santa, but Bella marched right up to him and demanded, "I takin' a picture and I gettin' a hug!" How do you deny that?

Our time with Santa isn't over yet. We're visiting with him (same Santa as earlier today) again at a friend's house later this afternoon. And then tomorrow we're heading out to the New Hill Railway for a whole train ride with a different Santa. She may think he's old news by then, but I have a feeling Santa has found his number one fan in my sweet girl. Stay tuned for more photos!

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Felty Goodness

A year or so ago, I stumbled upon a Blues Clues felt board that came with Blue, Magenta, Tickety, Salt, Pepper, and a thinking chair. I immediately wanted it for Bella, but I was too cheap to spend $20 plus shipping. Also, I don't think Bella was old enough to really appreciate a felt storyboard.

That was a year ago. This week, I've been lusting after several different felt boards across the Internet. (Yes, I know, I was lusting after a child's toy. It's been a long week, okay?) However, I didn't put a felt board on Bella's Christmas list and I just couldn't justify buying her something else when I've already purchased all her gifts.

Sooooooooo. I decided to make one. This is where things usually go downhill for me, but I am pleasantly surprised by how my homemade felt board turned out. While shopping at Hobby Lobby on Friday, I purchased a 10 x 12 sheet of hard felt (for $0.77) and 4 sheets of regular felt (4 for $1). I wasn't sure whether I was going to attempt people or animal shapes, but then I got home and remembered that I'm not Martha Stewart, so I did something much more basic. Voila:

Here's what's great about this felt board:

1) Both of my children love playing with it. Bella had no idea what to do, but she got the hang of it very quickly once Javi sat down and start playing.

2) Choosing shapes instead of more complicated pictures turned out better developmentally. I love that the kids have quickly figured out how to build landscapes, creatures, and other fun stuff out of circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles.

3) Dude. I paid $1.77 plus tax! It cost virtually nothing to make and the kids love it. If it gets destroyed or they lose interest, I can use the felt pieces on another craft or send the whole board onto a younger child.

Can you tell I'm proud of myself?

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Fear of flying

I spend an impressive amount of time managing my children's behavior. I suppose some could call it over-parenting, but I work really hard to keep my children from exhibiting the behaviors that most find socially unacceptable. For instance, when Bella is on the verge of melting down in the grocery store, I'm the parent who grabs a pack of gummies from her pocket or whisks her away to find something distracting to do.

But managing Javi's behavior is so much harder and more complicated. No amount of distraction or replacement works to sway him when he's barreling down the wrong path. When he's with the mountain man or me, we can help him reset his brain and his behavior -- but only after the inevitable collision. We can help him stand up, brush off the debris, and find a way to move forward.

Unfortunately, his teachers don't have the same amounts of time or patience. They aren't interested in finding a way to press his reset button. They aren't going to sit him down after his many daily crashes to help him sort through the wreckage, figure out what when wrong, and come up with some solutions to keep it from happening again next time. And they definitely aren't going to attempt to understand what key actions or behaviors pushed him down that course to start with.

What they will do is call out his name. Furrow their brows and raise their voices and yell at him to "PULL YOUR STRIP!" They will skip warnings because their nerves are worn raw and he just won't stop singing at his seat, interrupting their lessons, talking out of turn, touching the students around him, tossing paper balls into the air, and talking back. And and and. The list could go on forever. Actually, I could google a list of ADHD signs and symptoms and just paste that in here, because his behavior is classic attention deficit disorder.

So what do I do? Do I sit behind him in his classroom all day, the ever-watchful mama hawk ready to swoop down on him when I spot the downward spiral beginning? Do I follow him around with a belt in my hand ready to spank him into submission? Do I take him off the bus and instead wait in long lines in front of his school for hours each day? Do I remove him from the overcrowded public school in favor of better teacher-student ratios at the over-priced (and religious) private schools in our area?

Or do I do nothing? Do I make him pay the price for his actions when the price could be a constant presence in the behavioral modification room, poor grades, ostracism among his classmates, and suspension from the bus? Do I allow him to fail when I know that his behavior is something he can't completely control? Do I try to bend the rules to accommodate his disorder (which his teacher already told me she thinks is abusing the system) or do I sit back and hope he learns the hard lessons.

I don't have an answer. 85 percent of me screams and rails at the injustice of it. That majority says I need to make the school lighten up off him and give him what he needs to succeed. The other 15 percent of me wonders why they should. Why should his teachers have to cater to this child when the world won't? He can't expect his future college professor or boss to count to ten and talk him through it every time he has the impulse to talk or shout or jump or hit.

This is the ultimate dilemma when you're raising a child who can't control his attention span or impulses. Coax him into flying as you fly right underneath him or stay in the nest as he launches, hoping against hope that he'll soar. I am flexing my wings, but I have no idea whether I should start flying or just keep our roost warm for when he needs a safe place to fall.

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Sticky #6

Javi will be nine this month. Nine! As in, I've been a parent for nine long years. Some choice things I must never forget:

* He loves to dance, but somewhere he saw some dirty-ish dancing and now he likes to show off his "hip action." Elvis would blush. A few days ago I invited him to demonstrate his hip action for his aunt and she clutched at her chest as her eyes flew open. We stopped him when he decided to "take it to the floor." No, I change my mind. I don't want to remember that. Hip action is forbidden now.

* Having an exhibitionist baby sister has brought up some sibling jealousy in Javi. Has responded by asking to have "alone time" with me. This is accomplished by him curling up in my lap and reading or watching tv together. It's very sweet, except that he's only two inches shorter than me. So when he curls up, he covers me like a blanket. But this is our special time, so I just peer around him when I need to see something.

* We switched him from the twin-sized bed he's had since he was three to a queen-sized bed. However, he's like the fleas that you trap in a jar simply by leaving a lid on for the first day. He sleeps on his back smack dab in the center of the bed with his legs together and his arms at his sides. On either side are vast expanses of bed. He always was the perfect co-sleeper.

Meanwhile, Bellabug is growing and developing by leaps and bounds.

* She doesn't just talk, she holds long and complicated conversations. She weighs her words to make sure she gets her point across. If she's not sure how she wants to respond, she'll tap her chin with one finger while staring off into the horizon. Her answer may come in a few seconds, or you could be left hanging for long minutes as she deliberates. I asked her the name of the new girl at her school and she said, "Hmm. Is it Jasmine?" as she tapped her chin. I thought that was the end of it. Ten minutes later she yelled out, "Janey!"

* I have been "Mama" for years. While both Javi and Bella said Da-da first, Mama was right behind it and no other name stuck. This holds true for Javi, but not for my youngest. Last week she began shortening all of our names. Now, Javi is simply "Jav," Daddy is "Dad," and I am "Mom." It bugs Javi to no end. He yells out, "My name is Javi!" but she shrugs her shoulders and says, "Okay, Jav." During the dinner she said to me, "Great dinner, Mom" and then turned to the mountain man and said, "You like to, huh, Dad." I don't know how long this will last, but it makes us laugh every single time. (Well, us minus Javi. It still pisses him off.)

* In case you didn't notice, Christmas is here. Where Javi was petrified by Santa until his six birthday (and he is still hesitant), Bella loves Santa, the holiday, and all it entails. She has learned several Christmas songs and loves to sing and dance to them, including All I Want For Christmas Is My 2 Front Teeth and Let It Snow. She loved Halloween the best until we put up our tree and now she never wants Christmas to end. I kind of agree with her -- this has been a really fantastic month for both of them!

P.S. This is my 600th post! I could think of no better topic than the two incredibly sweet and smart monsters who have my heart. :)

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At the check out

Aching. Her back, her shoulders, her joints as she picks up each item and slides it across the scanner. She has stood in this spot for five hours and seven years as life whirled around her, as her body aged slowly from the outside in, as her mind divested itself of facts and figures to make room for bar codes and shift schedules.

The clock is stationed mercifully fifty yards behind her, but she has learned to tell time in new ways. She knows she walked through the industrial-strength sliding doors at ten p.m. and that one a.m. slid past her in a flurry of big-chested women in pajamas with sleeping babies tucked inside their carts and loud-mouthed teenagers high on the freedom of sneaking past their snoring parents to escape into the dark wonder of a twenty-four hour store. She can feel four a.m. approach stealthily with work boots and dark blue coveralls that come with deep, booming voices that call her m'am or don't speak at all. And when six a.m. yells out, she is ready with her purse on her shoulder and a diet soda in her hand.

For now, she is standing in a bright, timeless agony mired somewhere in the middle of her shift. She picks one foot off the floor and stretches it inside her shoes. She rolls her ankle first one way and then the other though the action never soothes the dull throb. She gingerly puts that foot back on the floor and picks up the other one. This time she rolls her head at the same time, closing her eyes briefly and grimacing as she stretches her neck just a tiny bit further until she hears the faint pop.

When she opens her eyes, she sees an elderly man making his way into the aisle. She puts both feet on the floor and pulls her shoulders back to stave off the hurt. As the man piles dog food and ice cream onto the belt, she prepares to pick up each item and slide it across the scanner.


This post was written for the (W)rite of Passage challenge created by Mrs. Flinger. The challenge is designed to inspire bloggers to write, to hone their craft and tell better stories, rather than to chase page views and followers. The challenge is open to anyone, so join if it speaks to you!

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For two mornings in a row, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table making holiday crafts with my children. Yesterday I was the only adult at the table. We chatted, the kids practiced sharing (with some minor successes), and everyone walked away feeling great.

Then today happened. My husband. Bless his heart but he has zero patience for imperfection. Where I'm very quick to say, "Oh well, you're eight, who cares," he stresses out and gets frustrated and yells out, "Geez, Javier! Are you even paying attention?!"

Watch the hurt and disappointment. Watch that eight-year-old face collapse in on itself. See the eight-year-old eyes fly downward and the eight-year-old lip pop out. Listen as the eight-year-old voice says thinly, "I'm just not good at this."

I forget sometimes that it's not fair for one person to force his or her desires and hobbies on someone else. The blame lies with me. I was the one, ten minutes earlier, who cajoled the craft-hating mountain man into sitting down at the table with us. It was my voice who said, "Why can't you just hang out with us as a family?" And my eyes that rolled into the back of my head when he said, "I'm fine just watching."

The snowball rolled disastrously out of control. It swallowed up them both and I was there on the sidelines, helpless to stop it. I tried to make it better, but my sweet boy doesn't recover well. And the mountain man was so frustrated that he bundled up the wee one and bounded outside. Javi and I sat side-by-side, painting glue onto his project and talking about what happened.

Me: "Your dad doesn't mean to get upset. He just doesn't understand that sometimes an artist doesn't do things perfectly."

Javi: "Am I an artist?"

Me: "Well, do you enjoy using your imagination to make new things?"

Javi: "Yeah."

Me: "Then you're an artist. And lots of people will misunderstand you, so don't let it upset you. Just keep creating things."

Javi: "Yeah, I'm an artist. Just like you, Mama. Not like Daddy. I'm a basketball player like Daddy."

Me: "That's right. You are an artist like me and an athlete like Daddy. That's pretty cool, right?"

Javi: "Yeah, it's pretty awesome."

And with that, our day folded back and the warmth returned. But it was a lesson for me. A deep, thoughtful lesson about how force can create something beautiful, but, just as often, applying it causes something equally amazing to shatter. I never again want to be that pressure.

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GTT: Healed

I see them everywhere. Walking through a department store, sitting in a restaurant, waiting in line for a flight, posting pictures across Facebook and beyond. They are fathers. Wonderful, doting, patient fathers. And I don't have one.

My first heartbreak isn't special when you consider the vast numbers of fatherless children in this world, but it tore my world apart. My father was there once, he had to be. I have snippets of memories that flame up when I search for them. They are fleeting and timeless: turning soap suds into clothes during bath time, building a snowman on our front lawn, standing at the sink watching him wash a dish. He is young and protective. I am wide open for him. I trust him without thought or intention, because he is my Daddy.

But then he was gone. He didn't die; he decided to live a life that excluded my sisters and me. He made choices that hurtled him down a dark and dank path filled with drug addiction and prison sentences. While his body was often there -- when he needed a place to live, when the guilt of leaving was too much for him to bear, when his paranoia made him believe our home was the only place "they" couldn't find him -- his mind and (more importantly) his heart were always somewhere else.

You can't fake love. Not when your child looks into your eyes. Not when your daughter reaches for you and you move out of her grasp. What I knew then, what I shut my heart off from as a child, was etched in concrete when I was old enough to say out loud: "You don't love us, not the way a father should." And his eyelids flickered as he said, "You're right. I wish it were different, but there's just too much distance."

A hot knife. The sharpest razor. A heart wrenched straight from your chest. A cavernous hole where love should live. That's a fatherless child. That's a woman carrying anger and hurt where her pride and esteem should be. That's a woman burning her way through the world without worry about who gets hurt because one person isn't strong enough for that burden.

This is a woman who put it down. This is the fatherless child who chose a new path for herself and decided to love and protect herself rather than wait for someone else to,. This is the woman who pours strength and devotion into her children's eyes, and never misses a moment to show them she loves them. This is the broken heart pieced back together with faith and determination and courage.

This is a healed heart, and it is the strongest of them all.


This post was written for Girl Talk Thursdays. Anyone can participate, so go join up if it speaks to you!

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Holes. Really Big Holes.

Before there was a girlchild in this house and before I worked from home, I used to roll out of bed at 5:30 am to get myself and the Javinator to our respective places on time. Waking any later than that would result in a mad scurry to get decent clothes on myself and the child (and get breakfast in his gullet) before scrambling to get us on the road.

That mad dash could be epic and usually resulted in mis-buttoned shirts, inside-out bras, and mismatched socks. However, one morning it led me to the most embarrassing moment in my adult life. Had I showered the day before, I would've rolled on in the day before's underpants. Because I had already skipped that crucial step, I knew I need to thrash around with some soap and don a fresh, clean pair of underpants.

I grabbed the first pair I found, completed my dressing and rushed about getting us out the door. I thought I was on my way to another uneventful day, but just as I was dropping Javi out at school, the reminder dinged on my phone. I had an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon for my standard every-six-months scoliosis check-up in fifteen minutes.

I took a deep breath, called into work to alert them that I'd be late, and quickly set out for the ortho. I spent the ten minutes getting there happily ensconced in morning radio as my mind drifted over the day's needs. I arrived for the appointment in plenty of time, settled myself in the waiting room, and passed the time observing those shuffling in and out.

Everything was going so well. There I was, clean and on-time. The child was where he needed to be. No one was waiting on me at work. I was ushered in to see the ortho in record time. The nurse instructed me to strip down to my underpants and put on a thin, starchy medical gown, which was a nuisance but completely necessary for the xrays I'd become accustomed to.

I kicked off my shoes and removed the clothes I had so haphazardly thrown on earlier that morning. My underpants had come down in the process, so I reached to pull them back up. And that's when I felt it. A hole. A gaping damn hole. Right in the side of my underpants. I pulled them away from my body in amazement and realized I could fit my entire fist in that hole. Showing up at a scoliosis evaluation with holey underpants is akin to showing up for a pap smear with ashy legs that haven't been shaved in a month. It's that bad.

I scanned the room for something, anything, that could fill that hole before the nurse came back. Gauze? Maybe I could wrap it around my belly! No gauze. Paper towels! Just layer them up. But they were brown and my underpants were white. I was becoming frantic. The nurse reappeared and insisted I get into the gown and move along to the xrays.

It'd be okay, I assured myself. I could leave the gown on for the xrays and then I'd strategically position myself so that the doctor never saw the canyon of skin flashing on my side. The xrays boosted my confidence; no one was the wiser. Now just to get through the evaluation. The visit was only to track any movement, anyway, so how bad could it be.

The moment you think how bad could it be is the moment you set yourself up for the fall. I was perched on the exam table ready to hear how my scans showed no movement when the orthopedist came in. He was analyzing my scans with a furrowed brow and pursed lips. I began to sweat a little, but still held out hope.

But then it happened. He said to me, "I need to see how your spine is curving in the bend." Horror rushed through me. That request roughly translates to "I need you to put your ass in my face and bend over." I didn't want to do it. I couldn't! But my body was moving on its own.

I slowly peeled one bare thigh off the table and eased my way to the floor. I bunched the gown on both sides of my body and pressed it tightly against my underpants. I held my breath. The minutes were melting slowly as I struggled not to blush or stammer out a confession.

He said brusquely, "Let the gown drop so I can trace your curve." I pretended not to hear him. I focused on breathing. The hole was burning against my skin. "Let's go ahead and let the gown fall," he repeated. I forced my fingers to let go of the bunches. The gown ballooned down from my neck, the strings tugging slightly where they were tied at my neck.

The hole gaped at him like a wide, toothless smile. The sleeve of his coat brushed against the bare skin showing through it. He ran two fingers along the curve of my spine, walked over to the scans, and then made notes. He left me in the center of the room, bent at the hips, garish hole blazing. After a few more long minutes, he told me he'd step out so that I could get dressed and that he'd be back to discuss my movement.

I flew into my clothes as if my very life depended on it, my face flaming. I don't remember much of the ensuing conversation. Something about a something-inch movement, a something-degree curve, a follow-up appointment in some short period of time ... but all I could think was, "A hole! A really big ass hole! In my underpants!"

He left and I scurried to pay for the visit. The frontline staff encouraged me to set the follow-up appointment, but I couldn't think. I knew only that I had to get out of there. I tore out of the office and parking lot on devil's wheels. My humiliation gave way to uncontrollable giggling as I called both my mother and my best friend to relive the story.

And then I found a new orthopedic surgeon. What else could I do?


This post was written for the (W)rite of Passage challenge created by Mrs. Flinger. The challenge is designed to inspire bloggers to write, to hone their craft and tell better stories, rather than to chase page views and followers. The challenge is open to anyone, so join if it speaks to you!

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Want... Badly

I'm a reader. I read books -- lots and lots of books. And blogs (so, so many), magazines, catalogs, the backs of boxes and bottles, and anything else I can get my hands on. I make long lists of TO READ to take to the library and then cry inside because our tiny country library doesn't have much that interests me that I haven't already read.

Obviously, when the chance to win a Kindle comes along, my spirit lights up. You understand, right? Because who can afford to put out that kind of money on an e-reader when the library is free? And maybe in 2011 I'll be able to check out Half the Sky. Or maybe it'll be 2012 ... if the world doesn't end.

So would you help a sister out? Would you click on this button and give me one more entry into this drawing? Then you can add your own entry and get your own link. It's a win-win. Pretty please?

Win a brand new Kindle!

Alternately, Santa could bring me a Kindle. But I think the giveaway has better odds.

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I went in search of the impossible-to-attain today: A cute Mouse King ornament and Clara/ballerina with brown hair ornament. Yes, those two crucial elements (cute and brunette) were destined to foil me, I just knew it.

My first stop was Hallmark (because, hello, it's Hallmark) and they did have an ornament Barbie as Clara (and Barbie as Corinne) ... but she was very blonde. My monkeychild is not a blondie (and I don't care who disagrees with me). There was no Mouse King in sight. I then wandered into a supposed holiday shop, but that was actually a party store that had 18 different types of $40 skanktumes for all seasons but only a small display of ornaments.

I was prepared to take hours out of my precious schedule to drive all the way to Cary or Fayetteville for a real ornament hunt. My mind was 85 percent made up. And then I alighted on it: the little shop tucked away in a corner. On a whim, I decided to explore. Can you guess what I found?

There was no official nutcracker, but the kids were so beside themselves with excitement and adoration over each of these that I'm calling it a huge success. I presented the nutcracker and the mouse king to Javi and Bella is the proud owner of the Sugarplum Fairy (who has brown hair!). So perfect.

I participate in an ornament exchange each year, so I also bought a cute little ornament for that family (and Bella's second official ornament will come from the exchange). And because I was sucked into the magic, I went ahead and selected this cute gem for our family ornament.

Honestly, I really wanted a penguin family but there was no family of four penguins and so I had to settle for people. Really pale people. But that's okay -- the shop was magical and I was happy to support it. There was also a gorgeous cinnamon bun and french silk pie on display but I abstained. I prefer my magic to come without added calories.

The ornament spree wasn't over. While I cooked up a pot of turkey stew (the last of our Thanksgiving leftovers), the wee ones painted their own wooden ornaments. I have no idea what we'll do with these yet, but lorda mercy did those two love this activity:

Bella quickly whipped through her Christmas tree and then moved onto paper while Javi worked painstakingly on his snowman. I foresee more wood and paint in our future.

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The Nutcracker

I have a confession: The first time I ever watched The Nutcracker was seven long days ago. And it was a Barbie movie we bought for $5 to keep Bella quiet during grocery shopping. (Better than gummy bears, right? RIGHT?)

I am not a fan of Barbie in general. When I was kid, I begged my mom to buy me some Barbies. She did. I woke up Christmas morning with all six Barbie & The Rockers. I promptly cut and died their hair and then destroyed sock after sock "designing" outfits for them. They were in the trash less than a week later. Since then, I haven't understood the pull Barbie has on girls both young and old.

But the DVD was only $5 and I figured that if she didn't like it once we popped it in, I'd give it to the other little girl at her school (who is the current recipient of all of Bella's gently used things). Bella hugged it and squeezed it and screamed bloody murder if we dared take it away from her. When we got home, the first thing she wanted to do was watch "Bobby."

So we did. And three members of our household were hooked: Bella, Javi, and me. Firstly, why the hell has no one told me how adventurous and engaging the story of The Nutcracker is? There was sword fighting, mouse armies, time travel ... the whole shebang. And my big kid collects nutcrackers. Why didn't I ever consider exposing him to this story before now?

All I can say is we've watched it now. We've watched it so many times, I can recite it and both kids can act it out. "Bobby da nudcackah" is an official family favorite. I'm even on the lookout for a mouse king to add to our nutcracker collection. (And there are two very demanding children who have asked me 878 times if I've found one. "Where dat mouse king go, mama? Where he comin' from?" So if you know where to find a mouse king, spill it!)

Nutcrackers and mice kings aside, I'm now seriously considering a trip to the ballet with both children. I may or may not be waiting for Hoffman's original story to arrive. I may or may not be crafting a new family tradition in my mind -- one that involves a trip to an indie coffee shop for hot chocolate and pumpkin lattes and children dressed to impress, just like I used to see as a barista in Boston's theatre district.

Let me just say it out loud: I'm so glad we made that $5 purchase. And, yes, I was a little too excited when I woke up on Friday morning and discovered Javi watching what could become another family favorite: Barbie and The Three Muskateers.

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Holiday cards

I new I wanted to do our family's holiday card* picture this weekend so as to take advantage of some print sales. I bought Bella's holiday dress weeks ago and decided Javi could wear his school uniform (collared shirt, khakis, belt). Outfits - check.

Then, for my birthday (which was Friday), I asked the mountain man to forgo a gift in exchange for putting up the Christmas tree. He corralled the children until I decided to get my lazy self out of bed that morning at 11:30 am. I heard what sounded like bells and got exciting thinking my tree was up and ready for decorations. Not hardly. Those bells were a certain holiday gremlin raiding the candy bowl while wearing reindeer ears. After a not-so-subtle comment, my pencil tree was erected.

Javi opted to watch while Bella and I dressed the tree. I guess the ornaments are old hat to him, but Bella adored unwrapping each one, asking "where dis come from?" and then hearing the story of whose ornament it was. She then hung her ornaments on the same three branches at the bottom of the tree. When she wasn't looking, the mountain man redistributed them for her. This is the first year we haven't had to leave the bottom third of the tree empty for fear of her destructive hands. Rather, she has lovingly tended the tree and remains fascinated by the ornaments on it. I can't wait to let her pick out her own ornament this year. Decorating the tree - check.

So now nothing stood in the way of getting the Best Shot. I knew going in that there'd be no perfect shot, so I decided to face the stress by doing what I could to get both kids in the frame, in front of the tree, with somewhat of a smile on their faces. That was for the best because just getting Bella into her outfit was like wrangling kittens and Javi kept asking me why he had to put on clothes. You know, because we all hang out in our underwear, right?

Let's just say that after breaking a sweat getting that girlchild into tights, undershirt, overdress, and shoes, I then had to do something with the mop that sits on her head. I opted for a headband because you can't go wrong... except she wanted to wear it like a pirate eye patch. Yeah. And then Javi refused to take his shoes off and so kept catching the tree skirt in the treads. Uh huh. Best shot. And I got it. And it will be in folks' mailboxes soon. But I worked for it. Seriously. These are my favorite outtakes:

Somebody really wanted a pirate eye patch. Damn headband.

No one cracks these two up like each other.

After all of that, including what could've been the breakdown of my marriage if the mountain man didn't stop stepping in front of the camera, my darling girl did this of her own free will:

What the fudgsicle?! Game on, little sassypants. Game on!

*And, yes, I saw holiday. When you're sending your cards to friends and family members of all faiths, you have to pull your head out and realize Christmas is only one of the holidays celebrated in December.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

This is the first Thanksgiving in at least five years that I haven't hosted both my family and the mountain man's to our home for an evening of food and conversation. This year, we're packing up and heading over to my mom's house (and "we're" includes my half siblings from my dad's second marriage).

There have already been some near-disasters, but we're all extremely thankful to have each other in health and happiness. The next twelve months are guaranteed to test us, but I hope we are all here and have as much to celebrate next year as we do today.

Also, I'd like you to know that your readership and comments always make my day. If I could give each of you a Javi-wrapped gift complete with Bella-stamped leaves (yes, those are leaves and not rotten bananas), I totally would. From my crazy family to yours, happy Thanksgiving!

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Lessons in gratitude

I'm not always capable of spotting the silver lining in our little family's storm-tinged clouds. The reasons are both obvious (I suffer from slight OCD) and surprising (I grew up in a constant state of anxiety).

Therefore, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my child who refuses to read each sentence in his math word problems, breaks down in tears because I refuse to find "misuse" in the dictionary for him, and comes home from school reciting long lists of what he did wrong that day (even when his behavioral report is positive). I have a child who is not flying through academics with ease. He stumbles over every single challenge he encounters.

But here's the thing. Though my son is compelled to make everything more difficult than it has to be, he is excelling. He works diligently on his homework every night, loves sticking his nose in a book, and has a burning curiosity for more information. He doesn't just want to know what, exactly, misuse means. He wants to know why it means that. Who decided? Why the prefix mis- instead of dis-?

And for the first time since he moved out of Ss and Us and into As and Bs, he has earned a spot on the A/B Honor Roll. Had this happened a few years ago, I would've been disappointed. I can admit that. I would've been disappointed that my highly intelligent child wasn't performing at the top of his abilities. I would've lectured him about his potential and his future.

But we've been down a long road. We've sat beside each other in a therapist's office and learned how to stop his disorder from controlling his life. We've tried method after method for keeping his complete lack of impulse control from keeping him in constant turmoil. We've sat in parent-teacher conferences listening the same message time and again: Javi is impulsive. He doesn't sit still. He talks out of turn and disrupts his peers. He argues with his teachers. He gives nonsense answers to questions though we know he knows the correct answer.

Yes, the road has been long and it has, at times, seemed dark and hopeless. We aren't at the end of it yet; however, my child took a deep breath sometime back in September and decided he was going to try just a little harder. He came home with an 82 (a firm C) in Math on his report card, and we sat down with him and talked about ways he could improve. He came home last week with the results of that pep talk: an 87 (a way firm B).

Some days I struggle to see the silver lining and other days I get blinded by the burst of light that my funny, smart, sweet little boy brings into my life. He never questioned his ability to hunker down and push through, never doubted that his dad and I are his staunchest allies, and never for one moment gave up on himself.

People like to say that I saved Javi's life, that I rescued him from what would've been a horrible life. But when I see him work so hard to conquer his challenges without ever throwing his hands up in defeat, I am so thankful to have him in my life. I didn't rescue him; he rescued me, and he teaches me another lesson in gratitude every single day.

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GTT: Not-so-hot hotties

More frequently than you might think, I develop crushes on completely average looking men. Pudgy, sweet, wielding a tool, dirty from a hard day's work... There's something about an attainable, approachable man that never fails to make my boobies tingle.

So here's to them:

1. Sam Elliot. Gah. So gruff and awesome. From the moment I saw him in Rocky Dennison as a kid (and, no, I don't care that the movie isn't actually named that), I've been a goner. This is why.

2. Billy Bob Thornton. I don't really know why. He just seems real... and dirty.

3. Chris Rock. You know living with this man has to be nothing short of a non-stop roller coaster. Nothing is more attractive than a funny ass man.

4. Cole Hauser and Michael Rappaport.
In my mind, sometimes they are the same person. Don't ask.

5. Benicio Del Toro. What's really crazy is this guy is described as a Silver Fox. Whaaa? I could just stare at him all day long.

Alright - so which not-traditionally-hot hottie is on your list?

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QOTD: I Sold Them .... For Free

Some of Javi's funniest moments come right after he bursts through the front door fresh from school.

J: Don't tell Daddy, but I was going to take these to school to sell them. [Holds up intricately folded pieces of paper.] So I get them down from up there [points to the entertainment armoire] and took them to school today.

Me: And did you sell any?

J: Yep, I sold three of them!

Me: How much did you sell them for?

J: [Shrugs exaggeratedly] For free. It's still selling though!


After flashing the shapes he didn't sell in my face, Javi then holds up a particular one and says, "Alex did this one." I glance at it and nod to show that I saw it.

J: Don't you see what it says? Look closer. [Puts it so close to my face, my eyes cross.]

Me: I can't make it out.

J: Oh, no, it's this one. [Holds up a shape with "Fouck You" written on it. Stares at me with big eyes.]

Me: What?! Why do you have that?

J: He just gave it to me.

Me: Well, I'm calling your teacher. That's completely unacceptable.

J: No mama! Don't tell her!

Me: What if you'd gotten caught with that? Alex wouldn't be the one in trouble -- you would be. I'm sorry, but it can't happen again.

J: Please, mama! Please! Can't you let it slip just this one time? Please? I promise not to take anything else with bad words on it. Please?

Me: This time, Javi. It had better not happen again. And you tell Alex that I'm watching him.

J: Thanks for letting it slip by, mama. I just don't know why Alex wrote that word. He can't even spell it right!

Yeah, Alex, learn to spell. Because that's what you should be ashamed of!

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Counting my blessings

The past few weeks have been filled with sadness. I've felt bombarded by the flow of heartwrenching negativity and spent too much of my time wondering how such cruelty and devastation as the murder of Shaniya and other babies can exist and even thrive ... because the world also holds so much beauty and so many possibilities.

As cliche as it sounds, I've decided to concentrate on the positivity. I need to keep the good things in front of my face lest I fall into the crushing abyss of darkness that always looms just behind me. So for today, and the days to come, I'm choosing to count my blessings.

I'm focusing on the crisp blue skies and warm weather that we have normally forgotten by November, the soul stirring contrast of bright orange or yellow leaves against that amazing blue, my children's laughter as they run through piles of freshly raked leaves, my husband's hand reaching for mine as we trail behind them.

I am so thankful for their health and happiness and for the health and happiness they bring to me. I hold in my hearts the other mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends who are struggling right now. I send courage and strength to those who need it most. And, above all else, I pray that we all find a way to bring more positivity into this world.

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Thinking about Shaniya

One story has haunted me for nearly a week now. Last Tuesday, our local news reported about a little five-year-old girl kidnapped from her mother's couch between 5:30 am and 6:30 am.

That's what we knew then. The Amber alert went out and everyone in our community went into action. We talked about Shaniya. We looked for her in the face of every young girl we saw. And then the news came in that she was spotted at a local hotel in the arms of a strange man.

That's when our hope and prayers took another a more desparate note. We wanted to believe she was still alive, that there was a future for little Shaniya, that no one would snuff out a precious life that had so much left to experience. But then...

Two days ago police arrested the child's mother on charges of knowingly selling Shaniya into sexual servitude.

The man seen holding Shaniya and getting onto an elevator with her to take her to a hotel room was arrested and charged with kidnapping.

An anonymous tipster told police they saw Shaniya with a man seemingly in his sixties.

Another tipster suggested police look for Shaniya's body in the woods less than two miles from my house.

And earlier today, searchers -- people who volunteered their time and energy and hearts to find this sweet girl -- stumbled upon her body in those woods.

I don't have many words to describe the gaping wound I feel in my chest. I didn't know Shaniya Davis or her family. I didn't volunteer to search for her, though I yearned to be out there turning over every rock if only to prove she was still alive. What I did was pray for her and her family, and remain riveted to news reports of the investigation.

Right now, just the idea of finding her there, alone and cold and abused and dumped in the woods like garbage. It pierces me. It makes my heart crumble and the tears flow and my body goes wobbly. I cannot imagine her father's pain or how his body will react when he has to identify his baby's body.

I don't know what the lesson here is, but I'm searching for it. Today, I will put my arms around them and shower them with kisses. I will breathe in their scents and show patience for their inability to see past the challenge at their feet.

I will love them with everything I have. And I will pray that Shaniya's death brings love to all the children in my community -- and yours -- tonight.

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I spent yesterday in the house with the kids. Hurricane Ida sent steady, cold rain and heavy winds our way so we decided not to venture out anywhere and the kids' schools were closed in observance of Veteran's Day.

I went to bed on Tuesday night filled with anxiety and dread. What would we do all day? How would my sanity remain intact? Why was the school system punishing me?

But I was worried about nothing. Bella slept until almost 10 am. There were some touch-and-go moments where they yelled in each other's faces (Leave me alone! I'm not touching you! LEAVE ME ALONE! I'm not doing anything! GET OUT OF MY FACE! I'm not even near you! -- and it was the two year old who did all the yelling), but all in all, we had a really good day.
The kids played legos and ate lunch. We then spent some time thinking about and showing our gratitude toward those who've fought for our country and our freedom: family members like my cousin Brandon who passed away last month at the age of 25 after serving in Iraq and friends like our neighbors who just returned from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan.

We enjoyed each other. There was laughter and discussion and joy. I think we spent the day doing what our service men and women would want: Being a family.

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